Thinking outside the paragraph


One, two or three paragraphs? Colin and I were working on a low level writing series when we came up against this question: What do beginning second language writers do after they have mastered the basic paragraph?

We took a look at our choices. We could teach one longer academic paragraph with its several supporting main ideas followed by details and examples. Or we could make the jump to multiple paragraphs.

There is not much research on the paragraph, but there should be. It is an incredibly useful device that signals many of the writer’s decisions in one neat visual package, letting the reader know how big a breath to take before diving in.

In his book, Genre and Second Language Writing, Ken Hyland talks about certain signals or conventions that are expected by readers, noting that readers notice when they are not there. Paragraphs are certainly features of writing that are quite noticeable if absent. When used effectively, they meet expectations of coherence and unity within and across paragraphs. On the other hand, when paragraphs are absent, a paper feels disorganized, as if the writer has not yet done the work of identifying the points he or she wants to make.

Expectations for clear paragraphs are so ingrained in English-speaking readers that they may seem obvious. Experienced writers use them almost unconsciously; however, many students struggle in meeting them. Hyland notes that beginning writers tend to overuse conversational features in their writing, which might explain the meandering nature and redundancies of many beginning writers’ first drafts. This was certainly our experience in writing classes where many students produced several pages, in which they “wrote like they talked” without bothering with the disruption of a paragraph break.

What low-level writers needed, we reasoned, was an understanding of how paragraphing could be used a tool to structure ideas. By working with two or more paragraphs they could acquire the ability to focus on one section at a time, shift focus in time, place or idea, showcase important points, and organize information in manageable chunks. In other words, through paragraphing, they had a device for bringing critical thinking into the writing process.

Moreover, by writing several short paragraphs they could use approximately the same number of words as one long paragraph. Like in a long paragraph, they would still be setting up hierarchies of main idea and support, but they would have a clearer picture of how the parts fit together to create a whole. These short paragraphs could then be developed as the writers progressed in their drafting process.

Finally, we wanted to avoid the gigantic leap that students are often expected to make when they move from the long paragraph to the full-on essay with its complicated introduction and thesis, development and conclusion.   The introduction alone can feel counter-intuitive to someone who has been drilled in the topic-sentence-and-support paragraph pattern. “You mean you want me to put the main idea at the bottom of the paragraph?”

And so we chose to embrace the multi-paragraph assignment, perhaps breaking the mold a little, but also offering an opportunity for low level writers to appreciate what paragraphing does, both in helping shape the writer’s thoughts and meeting the expectations of the reader.

The following are three strategies that can help to raise low-level writing students’ awareness of paragraphing during the writing process.

  1. Assignment design: Include paragraph instructions to support students in planning sections. For example, the following assignment could be used with high beginners:


Write a description of your childhood neighborhood. In your first paragraph, describe what it looked like. In the second paragraph, describe the things that you did there.

  1. Reflection on a model: Include paragraph noticing activities when you read a model. Ask, Why did the writer start a new paragraph? Give choices to help students notice what experienced writers do naturally.
  • to show a shift in time
  • to show a change of place
  • to start a story
  • to introduce a different person
  1. Peer feedback: Have students explain their paragraphing decisions. To get the writer to reflect on choices, instruct the peer to ask paragraphing questions, such as the following.
  • What were the goals of each paragraph?
  • Why did you start a new paragraph?

                                                                                                                                                                                – Alice

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